Monthly Archives: August 2014

Winemaker Interview – Kathleen Inman of Inman Family Wines

Winemaking as Art

This interview introduced me to a different approach to winemaking.  During this series, there have been interviews with wine industry professionals having extensive formal training and degrees in Chemistry, Biology, Oenology, etc.  These professionals focused on the technical approach to development of structure in wine.  The discussion quite notably lacked an emphasis on nuance and balance.  Maybe… it takes a Burgundy style Pinot Noir producer to truly do the topic justice?  Here, you will find a winemaking philosophy that is less about the science and more about a “feel” for the process.  If you want to believe winemaking can be “art”… join me in meeting Kathleen Inman.

Early Years

Kathleen grew up in a family of teetotalers and was not introduced to wine until her college years at UC-Santa Barbara.  She took a few wine appreciation classes there and spent the Summers working at Napa Creek Winery.  At the time, it never occurred to her that it could become a career.  It was during this time she met Simon Inman, married and made the move to England.  She found her love of gardening during the years in England.  On a small estate there, she experimented with organic growing methods and raised a few cattle in a small pasture.  Kathleen and Simon spent these years pursuing professional careers, while nurturing a love of fine wine and cuisine.  The dream of making great Pinot Noir eventually drew her back to California.

Establishing an Estate Winery

In 1998, Kathleen and Simon moved back to Northern California and she began the search for an appropriate vineyard site for Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.  While the search went on, she began volunteering at local wineries and attending Oenology classes at UC-Davis.  She eventually found an old farm in the midst of Pinot Noir country in the Russian River Valley and by 2000 had planted the vineyard and begun a renovation of the old farmhouse.  In 2002, Inman Family Wines released its first vintage.  The vineyards are organically farmed and the winery uses sustainable practices in its operation. Kathleen handled the vineyards and winery by herself, with no full-time employees until 2010.  She truly built the business from the ground-up.  Today, Inman Family Wines produces roughly 5000 cases of which 80% is sold direct-to-consumer and the other 20% is distributed by Broadbent Selections to the restaurant trade.

On the Balance

In Napa Valley, you don’t hear much talk about the topics of low-alcohol, nuanced flavors, or balance.  Napa offers a predominance of big, alcoholic fruit-bombs.  If the wine can strike a balance, these can be truly amazing wines.  Although, driving big fruit, big acid and big tannins in equal parts, can be a significant challenge, especially during difficult vintages .  When these wines miss the mark, they can be difficult to appreciate – drink now, OR aged.  It would be interesting to see a few more winemakers with Kathleen’s type of approach in Napa.

Wine as Art

When I first started drinking wine, I was introduced to Napa producers first.  It was all I knew and I loved premium Napa wines.  When I started sampling more French and Italian reds, less manipulation and more focus on structure and balance started to build in importance.  Many Burgundy style producers often take this even a step further, looking to add elegance and nuance to the final product.  These kind of goals are not the result of an exclusively technical approach, but more from the “art” of building a fine wine.  This is Kathleen’s focus.

Kathleen loves growing vegetables and fruits, cooking farm-to-table and ultimately sharing the result with friends and family.  If you add organic and sustainable practices to the mix, it is easier to see the motivation behind focusing on the natural flavors and discouraging manipulation.  She uses only milder French oak (no American oak), never more than 25% new barrels, with a preference for a subtle oak influence. She believes manipulation destroys aging potential and is a big fan of the nuances age can bring to a well-made wine.  The fermentation is done with only naturally occurring yeast at her location, which as it turns out, was not easily identifiable when the lees were sent out for analysis.  Another added natural complexity to the wine.

This fascination with producing complex wine, while expressing the location AND limiting manipulation of the fruit has led to to a few unorthodox ideas.  Kathleen blends wines produced from individual blocks of vines with a special end-goal in mind.  She selects three to five blocks to harvest on a range of dates, ferments and makes the individual block designate wines separately.  The wine from the first early pick is always very acidic, low in alcohol and floral.  As you would imagine, the final late season pick is very fruity, high in alcohol and more textured.  This kind of winemaking and blending can only be done with estate vineyards.  Purchased fruit is always harvested on a single pass, but this Olivet Grange Vineyard is Kathleen’s baby.  She never picks for optimum brix (sugar level) like most growers.  She is looking for optimum acidity (pH), appropriate phenolic development, skin and pip texture… Kathleen often decides to harvest on a “feel” for the proper maturity.

Whole Cluster Fermentation

Kathleen has become a fan of whole cluster fermentation in making Pinot Noir, stems and all.  She feels stem inclusion in full clusters actually increases the availability of carbon dioxide in the must and pushes the ferment naturally towards carbonic maceration.  There is a delicate balance at play here.  These processes can make it difficult to express tannins in the wine, removing one of the primary components of a structured red.  While Pinot Noir is not high in tannins, some is necessary to provide the appropriate mouth-feel.  These are not traditional Pinot Noir ideas, but for me, it makes sense.  The early harvest strategy sets the perfect stage for these techniques to help retain the fruity flavor components.  She has gradually increased the amount of whole cluster fermentation in the mix, to a full 100% in the 2013 vintage.

Terroir and Flavors

Kathleen feels the estate OGV site produces floral aromatics in both the Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grown there, with the Pinot Gris in particular picking up the iron minerality from the soil. Personally, I can taste the minerality in the Pinot Noir, but it is not tomato, or blood flavors typical of iron components as can show in Ribiero del Duero Tempranillo (for example).  It is a “wet rock” character to me.  She also feels the Pinot Noir from this vineyard consistently produces tart cherry and rhubarb flavors, unlike the candied, or fresh, sweet cherry typical of Carneros Pinot Noir (for example).

Next Up?

Kathleen has been experimenting with a small quantity of Zinfandel fruit the last few years.  She is looking to achieve the perfect pizza wine, with lower alcohol, a black fruit profile, higher acidity in a more restrained style.  She has a soft spot for Ridge Zinfandel.  The hope is to hit on just the right style using fruit from a Sonoma County vineyard location.  One day she would like to try her hand at Grenache in this style too!

Conclusion

The first Inman Family Pinot Noir I tasted was at a Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner four years ago.  It was a beautifully paired combination.  That 2006 vintage was arguably one of the most balanced wines I have ever tasted.  The Inman Family wines would seem best suited to a specific group of wine enthusiasts.  Not meant to be drunk as an aperitif, but always with food.  Not as a daily drinker, but when you can focus on and appreciate the structure… and especially not when the audience is seeking a fruity, cherry concoction. This is a classic version of New World Pinot Noir, made with restraint and artistic flair and is a tremendous value.

 A Inman Family Wine Selected From My Personal Cellar to Accompany the Interview

I popped this to coincide with the interview and here is my tasting note:

 

 

218848

2007 Inman Family Pinot Noir Olivet Grange Vineyard

California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley

Wine Tasting Note:

The 2006 was a prettier vintage.  It was a touch more fruit forward and a little more balanced, but this is still a wonderful effort.  The nose has aromas of sour red and black cherries, dark chocolate, minerality and a floral note.  The color has picked up a brownish tinge showing some age and the freshness is not all there, but the palate is still showing strong acidity making the wine very lively in the mouth.  The tannins are subdued and the alcohol is very well integrated.  The texture is gorgeous – very soft and pleasant.  This is old world style wine, focusing on balance and complexity.  The fruit is in front but subtle, moving to a mid-palate with vanilla, oak, leather and mineral aspects with a medium-long finish of bitter chocolate.  This is more of a food wine, than a patio sipper.  I enjoyed this California Pinot Noir expressing a less typical point of view.

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Winemaker Interview – Kale Anderson of Pahlmeyer Winery and Kale Wines

Please share your opinion. This piece has a touch more technical detail regarding how a winemaker builds a wine profile and I want to make sure you find it interesting. 

A Wine Adventure

Kale is one of those lucky winemakers that enjoys the advantages of living in two worlds.  With a solid gig at an established winery (Pahlmeyer), he can pursue commercial success in the safety of traditional expectations.  On the flip side, he also manages a side project where he can experiment with his professional passion.  I imagine this makes for a rather busy lifestyle…

Exploring the diversity in the world of wine is clearly his passion.  Our conversation was dominated by his focus on:

  • Investigating a broad array of wine styles.
  • Understanding different varietals and the impact of various terroirs on each.
  • Learning winemaking techniques that add interest to these elements.

I came away from the interview wanting to make wine myself, but then again, I am a tinkerer who loves wine too. I will need to catch-up with Kale again.  I was too interested in his explorations and did not get a chance to discuss the industry and his more conventional endeavors.

Pahlmeyer Winery

Kale works hard to capture what the fruit offers in these wines.  He also feels it is important to honor the Owner’s (Jayson Pahlmeyer) vision and respect the history and legacy of the label.  Our discussion regarding white wines at Pahlmeyer took us down an interesting path.  Kale is definitely working to create distinctive and diverse styles.  Previously, as winemaker at Cliff Lede, his Sauvignon Blanc was fermented in stainless and cement and not always aged on the lees.  He felt it was the right decision, based on the approach of the winery and the fruit. At Pahlmeyer, they are making 100% barrel fermented Chardonnay aged in 100% new oak. They use aggressive stirring of the lees during fermentation, age on the lees and even swap the lees across different batches, depending on the flavor character.  They also include a secondary malolactic fermentation to soften the wine even further.  The resulting wine is an opulent, rich, soft, textured Chardonnay. Kale prefers not to filter wines, if possible.  Pahlmeyer produces roughly 15,000 cases of Napa origin and 7,000 cases of Sonoma origin wine.

Kale Wines

He has two special projects with Kale Wines. Both mirror his adventurous side:

1) The Alder Springs Vineyard is at higher elevation in the cooler climate Mendocino area. Typically the type of location better suited to Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay, but instead this area struck him as a great location to make Syrah.  Production – roughly 150 cases annually.

If you are familiar with the Northern Rhone area of France, the setting for this vineyard will compare more closely with Cote-Rotie AOC, than Napa.  Kale is looking for the Northern Rhone influence, but working to accent the style with winemaking techniques that can offer a fusion with the New World.  Currently, he is using whole cluster fermentation to add a fruit-forward aspect.  For those who have not experienced Cote-Rotie wines, a typical profile would be:  lower alcohol, floral, rich black fruits, savory meat and olive tapenade with a heavy texture that can approach oily.  The great Northern Rhones are spectacularly complex with a structure and balance that can rival great Bordeaux.

2) A warm-climate Southern Rhone style wine from Sonoma County? Not sure I have seen GSM (or the like) there.  While Bordeaux, Burgundy and Puglia style wines predominate in the area, Kale found a location that he feels can support his vision: Kick Ranch Vineyard.  Again, he is attempting to revise perception and convention.  Production – roughly 200 cases annually.

Quality is difficult to achieve with a Southern Rhone style.  It is a real fight to provide the right structure and balance.  There are a few significant challenges:

  • Finding the best vineyard location that offers warm to hot days, but also cool to cold nights.
  • Controlling the canopy management (pruning strategy) to ensure just enough, but not too much sun.
  • Managing the availability of water to the vines.

Warm-climate fruit typically has a big, soft character… and if you’re not careful, the end-result can be grape juice, instead of wine.  This style in particular seems to require a winemaker actively working on the farm helping the vineyard manager to develop the right level of tannins and acidity. With the wrong fruit, this style requires manipulation and additives to make it more enjoyable.

Kale has signed contracts with both vineyards which will allow him more control and input into the canopy management and harvest strategy.  Growers typically harvest fruit in a single pass, usually when brix (sugar level) is highest.  In contrast, if a winery can harvest select rows, or blocks individually, or choose to pick one row early and another late, it will add substantially to the complexity and structure of the wine.  Without this approach, it is very difficult to achieve a balanced wine in a warm-climate setting.

His favorite part of the job is the time in the vineyards… working with the vineyard managers to develop the right strategy to support Kale’s vision for the wines.  He believes his greatest challenge is improving control of the process from the vineyard to the winery through to aging.  Each vintage is his effort to leave a personal touch that defines the wine.  The idea is to highlight characteristics that make the wines interesting and represent their place of origin.  He is not looking to develop a “House”, or “Winemaker’s” style. Each vintage celebrates the diversity of each growing season and each label represents a range of character and profiles.  In every instance, the only consistency is striving for structure and balance.

Philosophy

Kale’s approach to wine can be summed up in a single sentence… “In the case of every wine, I try to achieve the most interesting profile I can, in each style.”  I look forward to future tastings, where my palate can enjoy a real adventure in wine, without leaving my seat!

 

A Pahlmeyer Wine Selected From My Personal Cellar to Accompany the Interview

This wine was bottled before Kale became winemaker. I popped this to coincide with the interview and here is my tasting note:

86382

2004 Pahlmeyer Winery Jayson Red Blend

California, Napa Valley

Wine Tasting Note:

Initial taste is hot and alcoholic, watery and missing fruit. After a 90 minute decant – the wine has evolved into a beautiful aged Cabernet Sauvignon blend.  The alcohol has blown off, the tannins are soft and dusty and the blackberry and black currant is in front.  A definite Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience!  This is the third 10-15 year-old premium Napa Cab I have tasted this year, and the experience has been similar.  These older Napa cabs need time to open…  The nose is still hot, but the fruit is prominent, with leather and loamy earth.  The palate is fruit forward now, but is typical of an older wine: missing the fresh fruit, but not oxidized yet. The mid-palate has leather, oak, spice and earth with a medium-long finish of dark chocolate.  The acidity is high and the tannins are very soft and subdued.  The structure is solid, but the balance is a touch off.  A few years earlier and the additional fruit might have offset the high acidity and alcohol. I found this enjoyable paired with a meat and cheese plate…

Had to add this postscript:

After 4 hour decant – Oh my gosh! The fruit is turning red and becoming sour raspberry. The tannins have completely resolved, but the wine is moving towards a velvet texture. The acidity has calmed down.  A great example of a balanced profile.  Just fantastic aged red wine!  Is there enough fruit to put another 3-5 years of bottle age on this, I hope so… I have one last bottle…

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Winemaker Interview – Bill Nancarrow of Goosecross Cellars

Winemaker’s Toolbox – Blending

 

When you talk with winemakers regularly as I do, you begin to expect being regaled about a passionate connection to wine and the industry. Bill takes you down a different path, focusing on the process and science of wine.  He dives right into conversation regarding the chemistry as if it were the only approach to winemaking.  In our conversation, we touched on building premium wines, his formative years in New Zealand and moving from his legacy at Duckhorn, to his future at Goosecross Cellars.

Before Duckhorn

Bill was raised in New Zealand and his early years were far from the wine scene.  He chose Hospitality and Resort Management as a career.  The training included an introduction to Wine and Culinary Program Management, his first exposure to the wine industry.  During his travels in South Africa, wine continued to intrigue him.  Upon returning, he was introduced to Nick Sage (currently with Eastern Institute of Technology Wine and Spirits) and Kate Radburnd (winemaker CJ Pask Winery) and their influence moved him to a full commitment to wine as a career. He worked with Kate at CJ Pask for five years learning the craft.  CJ Pask is in the Hawkes Bay region and focuses on Syrah and Merlot. New Zealand is well known around the world for quality Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but Hawkes Bay has a long tradition with warmer climate varietals.  Bill eventually made the decision to come to Napa and expand his knowledge of Bordeaux varietals.  He joined Duckhorn and soon became winemaker for their new label at the time: Paraduxx.

Duckhorn Vineyards

Bill’s experience at Duckhorn was steeped in the tradition associated with the brand.  Tom Rinaldi was the founding winemaker and had a significant influence, sharing and handing-off his passion for structured U.S. Merlot in an Old-World style.  We also discussed the style of Chardonnay at Duckhorn: acidic, minimum of oak, aggressive stirring of the lees and never a secondary Malolactic Fermentation.  A very specific style aimed at being fresh, with a bite and a rounder mouth-feel.  Bill was later promoted to Executive Winemaker and found his responsibilities were taking him too far afield from the winemaking itself.  The role included added travel and took him away from his young family too frequently.  He soon came to realize, this career direction was not a good fit.

Merlot

Every discussion with a Merlot producer, eventually winds its way to the movie Sideways.  With Bill having been so connected to premium Napa Merlot for so many years, it was inevitable:

The Wine DOCG – “So, Bill why do you think there is so much lousy Merlot made in the U.S.?

Bill – “Merlot has been so over-planted in the U.S. in the last decade, that vines were turning up in horribly unsuitable locations.  I think Sideways had a positive effect on Merlot production.  The change in demand resulting from the impact of the movie led directly to vineyards in poor locations being removed and re-planted with more suitable varietals.”

I have heard this line of reasoning before.  Makes sense from the big picture perspective, but if you were a premium Merlot fan, it appeared tragic… For me it manifested in a personal cause never to accept the comment, “but, I don’t like Merlot!”  I have converted many a “Merlot hater” over the years.  Recent figures from the U.S. International Trade Organization show that 9% of all wine sold in the U.S. is still Merlot and it is the 4th most sold wine in the U.S.  This is down substantially from 16% in its heyday.  I still believe there is too much Merlot grown in locations like the Central California inland valleys and made into inexpensive red wine. Personally, I am a big fan of wine made from Merlot grown in the mountains above the Napa Valley floor.  If you love big, bold Merlot look to the Howell and Spring Mountain areas.

On Winemaking

In my experience, Bill is a departure from most New World winemakers.  He talks like a Bordeaux wonk: “Flavors look out for themselves in wine” and “focus on the structure”.   I can really connect with his point of view. In a warmer (getting warmer too) climate growing area like Napa, the fruit is going to be ripe and intensely fruity, but structure is not always easy to find.  No purist winemaker wants to add acid, or ferment reds with a large quantity of stems to get tannins…  If you focus on structure first in Napa, the flavors are more likely to follow on their own.  Although Bill feels Oak is important to “rounding-out” a wine, he tries to stay away from too much new American Oak and is not a fan of over-oaked whites, OR reds.

I like his thinking on a common wine style controversy: “Drink Now” vs. “For Bottle Aging”.  It is very difficult to make wines that can succeed at being both.  Bill firmly believes it is better to make the two different styles separately, rather than make a single wine capable of both.  This kind of approach can produce more consistency year over year.  Especially, when considering how vintage variation can effect wine style.

 On Blending

In Bill’s view, vineyard designate wines can be somewhat problematic.  They can be very singular in their approach, missing the complexity of blended wines.  We talked about same varietal blending across vineyards and across individual blocks.  We also touched on varietal blending to add complexity.  You can hear the conviction in his voice during this discussion.  It is obvious this is his element.  When I asked him about his favorite activity as a winemaker, he answered immediately:  “in the winery, making the wine and blending for flavors/aromas.”   He says, he still has not made the “perfect wine” and it drives him to continue searching, experimenting and blending to achieve his goal.

 On Terroir

With a more scientific approach to wine, it was not a surprise to hear a more objective approach to the mystical French idea of terroir.  When posed with the question… after a pause, he noted, “There are probably no flavors imparted by soil in the vineyards.  The climate, environment and access to water are more likely to be important factors.”  I agree.  The supposed controversy surrounding terroir’s impact on the character of wine is ridiculous.  Terroir by definition is not just about soil, it is the complete vineyard environment defining the conditions under which the vine grows and ripens fruit.  There is too much empirical evidence supporting the specific influences to take the naysayers seriously.

 Goosecross Cellars

The winery was sold earlier this year to Christi Coors (Golden Equity Investments -no, not Coors Brewing Company) and the winery began looking for a Head Winemaker. Bill was soon selected as a great fit for the new ownership. Geoff Gorsuch one of the previous Owners and Winemaker for the past 28 years and Colleen Topper (Tasting Room Manager) will stay on for the first year, providing some continuity.

“A “house style” (style of wine a label is known for) can be a goal, to a degree, but not so much that it drives extensive winemaker manipulation, especially to mask vintage variation.  Wines must be allowed to express where they are from “, according to Bill.  “Manipulated wine can be too generic”… never the goal of a premium wine. Goosecross has 9 acres of estate vineyards off State Lane in Napa Valley and Bill is looking forward to capturing the location in the wines.  The soil is rocky and the terrain is hilly, creating micro-climates that can cause variation in the fruit profile.  He believes this area East of the river produces Cabernet Sauvignon with blueberry and/or violet aromas.  A unique characteristic compared to the balance of the valley floor.  We also talked about fighting the urge to make generic Chardonnay.  It sells well, but is missing any uniquely recognizable character. He prefers the very acidic, less manipulated style, which pairs well with richer foods.

Goosecross sales currently are 100% direct to consumer, but there is a plan to introduce a new label next year that will be intended entirely for the distribution channel, focused primarily on the restaurant trade.

 The Future

You can hear the energy in his voice when he talks about the future at Goosecross.  It seems Bill is excited about the challenge and ready for the opportunity to put his stamp on future vintages.  Good luck and I look forward to tasting your new wines!

 

Please note, while Bill spent many years with Duckhorn, he was not the winemaker in 1999 when this wine was bottled.

 

289199

1999 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard

California, Napa Valley

Wine Tasting Note:

After One Hour Decant

The alcohol is blowing off now. The nose is of black plum and blackberry, with a spicy cinnamon and clove character. Rather simple on the palate. The fruit is subdued, but in front still, with a mid-palate of powerful clove. The medium length finish is a mild, bitter dark chocolate. The bitterness becomes sour at the very end. The tannins are still present, but minimal and the acidity is still medium high. I was disappointed by the texture. The mouth-feel was a touch watery. This is a few years past its prime, but is not tasting oxidized yet. Still enjoyable and will definitely pair well with the beef that will be accompanying it.

After Two Hours Decant

The wine is still changing. The fruit is continuing to subside on the palate, but the flavor of sour strawberry is beginning to appear. The texture is continuing to evolve. The finish is lengthening and adding black pepper. The tannins are now a bit chewy. The acidity is becoming more prominent and the mouth-feel is building softness. Patience is paying off and the potential of this wine is starting to show. Amazing that a 15 year old bottle of wine can continue to evolve for two hours in the decanter!

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